In the opening scene of Sriram Raghavan’s terrific new film, it appears to be a routine day at Mahatma Gandhi Road in Pune. A woman is haggling with a vegetable vendor. Another woman is walking with her young son. It’s a picture-perfect day and nothing much seems amiss, but we’re hooked. Two men arrive on a motorbike and go straight into the bank, pulling down the shutter expertly as they go in, and no one around them bats an eyelid. A towing van arrives and starts picking up illegally parked bikes.
A few minutes later, the two men run out of the bank with masks on and a large duffel bag that is obviously full of cash. Meanwhile, the mother and her son are getting into the car, which is hijacked by the thieves, while a traffic policeman takes some time to realise what is happening only after being informed by the panting bank security guard. The car backs out and a stunned biker rams into it. Cut.
This beautiful one-take opening shot is the best and yet also the most dishonest thing about Badlapur, for it completely deceives the viewer about the kind of movie he or she is watching. That first cut is a lot like watching the floodgates of a dam opening – calm, controlled water transforming into a destructive, wanton force of nature with a tendency to aggressively sweep aside anything in its path.
On the surface, “Badlapur” is a visceral revenge drama; tracing one man’s unraveling as he pursues a vendetta against the people who ruined his life. Probe deeper and you will find that Raghavan questions the genre and turns it on its head, and asks uncomfortable questions.
So, while the botched bank heist results in the deaths of Misha (Yaami Gautam) and her young son Robin (‘Don’t Miss The Beginning,’ says the film’s super classy tagline), distraught ad professional Raghu (Varun Dhawan), Misha’s husband, is consumed with the thought of revenge. Liak (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a glib con-man, gets caught by the police and blames the entire thing on Harman (Vinay Pathak), who he claims was the mastermind and the murderer. However, he also remains loyal enough to Harman to not divulge his identity to the police. Meanwhile, Raghu, dissatisfied by the proceedings, kicks off his own investigation by making contact with a prostitute named Jhimli (Huma Qureshi), who is Liak’s recurring flame.
However, its biggest problem is that it doesn’t allow the audience to take the same journey its characters have supposedly taken. A massive jump-cut takes the audience 15 years into the future and we’re told that Raghu has cut off from his social circles and lives in a sparse apartment in Badlapur, a small town just outside Mumbai. Meanwhile, Liak continues to be in prison even after having been diagnosed with final-stage stomach cancer.
It is in this portion of the film that the logical fallacies start annoying you, with the story giving you answers to ‘what?’, ‘when?’, and ‘where?’, but satisfactory answers to ‘how?’ and the all-important ‘so what?’ are rare. Why does a bourgeois couple get rattled by a random, deranged stranger instead of calling the police, especially when there is no solid evidence to support his claim? Where does an enormous roll of plastic, enough to cover an entire room, appear from when the bearer is shown walking into a house with only a bottle of wine and a bag that doesn’t seem very big? Why does a genial-but-sharp inspector (played by Kumud Mishra) gather strong evidence against someone, only to arrest an obviously false confessor?
The best parts of Badlapur, however, are the characters and the cast. Huma Qureshi, Divya Dutta and Yami Gutam are very competent. Radhika Apte is absolutely fantastic. And Pratima Kazmi is outstanding. But the movie belongs to the axe and the tree. Varun Dhawan brings out the angst, grief and loss of Raghav superbly. In a lovely scene between him, Vinay Pathak and Radhika Apte, Varun simply excels as a man on the edge. And Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Laik, who is wily, cunning and wicked but also someone who has been dealt a bad hand of cards by destiny gives an outstanding performance. Backed by a role that plays to the gallery, he plays Laik like no other actor could have.
Where “Badlapur” falters is plot… Liaq is accused of murder and robbery, but Raghu’s pardon is enough to get him out of jail. People drive cars that didn’t exist 15 years ago. The characters seem to age hardly at all from the early scenes to the later ones. The quality of the rest of the film makes such flaws jarring.
To be completely fair, though, Badlapur is both a lot better than the average Bollywood movie and could definitely have been a lot worse. But there is more posturing than truth in this violent, 134-minute film, which requires too much forced suspension of disbelief for a movie that otherwise claims to be rooted in reality.